THE HOLE IS A MARK

Since 2009, Bill McDowell has downloaded more than 1,000 files of “killed” negatives from the Library of Congress website. He’s made several hundred prints, experimenting with selection and sequencing to get somewhat of a coherent understanding of the images. In Ground, his edit hones in on a very particular group of photos taken by nine different photographers in the formative years (1935−1939) of the Farm Security Administration project.

McDowell’s selection of images is specific and intentional, as are his juxtapositions and rhythmic layout. His interpretation of this small sliver of the FSA imagery is entirely subjective and, as he writes, “does not represent the scope of the FSA photographic record. It is non-comprehensive in the photographers chosen, the breadth of their subject matter, and the geographic locations in which they worked.”

In another statement about Ground, McDowell writes, “It is certain that [FSA director Roy] Stryker’s use of a hole punch was strictly utilitarian; his only goal was to destroy negatives. But in his act of censoring what images were ‘suitable’ for printing, Stryker unwittingly created a new picture, one that belonged neither to the mission of the photographer [nor to that of] the FSA.”

Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota. 1937. Russell Lee.
Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota. 1937. Russell Lee.
"Stryker unwittingly created a new picture, one that belonged neither to the mission of the photographer [nor to that of] the FSA.”

The following conversation between Bill McDowell and DJ Hellerman provides a deeper understanding of McDowell’s process, his interest in the killed images, and the larger context for these images’ resonance with our particular moment in history.

DJ Hellerman: How did you first discover the killed negatives?

Bill McDowell: I had a very powerful, almost visceral reaction the first time I saw a killed negative printed. It was in a magazine that accompanied a short article on the publication of Michael Lesy’s book Long Time Coming, published in 2002. I recall the image in the magazine was of a street scene, and it had a perfect black hole deleting part of the photograph. My reaction was something like, “Damn, I wish I had made that.” Looking back, it’s a little odd, because Lesy’s book, while about FSA photography, doesn’t include any killed negative images, although he briefly mentions them.

BH: Once I began the project, I did a search to see who else had made published use of the killed negatives and I came across the work of Lisa Oppenheim, Étienne Chambaud, and William E. Jones. Their respective approaches in working with the negatives were different from mine and it was good to see broad possibilities in mining the collection.

Jewish poultry cooperative. Liberty, New York. 1936. Paul Carter.
Jewish poultry cooperative. Liberty, New York. 1936. Paul Carter.

DJH: Ground refers to the agricultural focus of your project and to figure/ ground relationships—your interest in formalism. Can you discuss your formal interests in these images and your strategies for layering content into the work?

BM: That’s correct - there is a dual meaning to the title. But I’m not sure that the reference to the various figure/ground shifts that occur in these photographs relates to my interest in formalism. Rather, I’m often drawn to photographs (or photographic situations) that have a certain pictorial intensity to them, and I use that as an entry point. And then it becomes a matter of how to work with and against that entry point to engage in more complex and nuanced relationships.

Getting fields ready for spring planting, North Carolina. 1936. Carl Mydans.
Getting fields ready for spring planting, North Carolina. 1936. Carl Mydans.

BM: I’m interested in making a photograph that has a formalistic base only as a beginning point. In Ground, I paid attention to the many ways in which the black hole impacted the pictorial dynamics of the respective photographs, and figure/ ground was just one of the visual attributes the hole punch affected. The simple presence of the hole joined the images together, and then the specific way it impacted each photograph further created a congruent or dissonant relationship. Not every killed negative has a figure/ground shift. For me, it was important to include in the title a reference to the way the selected photographs operate visually, and not just refer to their subject matter.

“The simple presence of the hole joined the images together.”

DJH: Is Ground a curatorial project for you?

BM: Yes. And one that relates pretty closely in its sensibility to other projects in which I was the artist making the photographs. In all of my photographic work I spend inordinate amounts of time in the editing process, testing relationships between images and layering meaning. What made Ground different for me was that because I didn’t make the original images, I had a built-in emotional distance to them that aided somewhat in building a structure where they would interact.

Bad road, Garrett County, Maryland. 1935. Theodor Jung.
Bad road, Garrett County, Maryland. 1935. Theodor Jung.
Blackjack oak, Withlacoochee land use project, Florida. 1937. Arthur Ruthstein.
Blackjack oak, Withlacoochee land use project, Florida. 1937. Arthur Ruthstein.

DJH: Most, if not all, of your other projects have an intense connection with humanity and universal struggles that we all face. Where do you find that human connection within these FSA images and the Ground project?

BM: It begins with the pictures. The photographs in Ground share so much with my own previous work in being simultaneously abstract and realistic (to steal a phrase from Alan Sekula’s description of Anthony Hernandez’s photographs). This becomes the basis for constructing a body of work that relates to my desire to share with the world. It’s a strange weaving of the personal and the shared, mediated and distilled through dispassionate editing. I use the editing process to distance myself emotionally from the photographs at hand and to overcome the self-indulgence and ego attachment every work begins with.

Farm laborer’s wife hanging washing. “Eighty Acres,” Glassboro, New Jersey. 1938. Arhtur Ruthstein.
Farm laborer’s wife hanging washing. “Eighty Acres,” Glassboro, New Jersey. 1938. Arhtur Ruthstein.

BM: In time, the photographs speak to you. They inform you as to where they belong, if they belong at all. And yes, pretty universal themes run through my work, and all my projects make use of the poetic document. In Ashes in the Night, for example, I worked (literally) with my father’s cremated ashes to make photographs that question our place in the universe. The project began with the intensely personal, but my attempt was to create photographs that extended beyond any emotional relationship I had with my father.

Levee workers, Plaguemines Parish, Louisana. 1935. Ben Shahn.
Levee workers, Plaguemines Parish, Louisana. 1935. Ben Shahn.

BM: A connective thread in all my work is the malleable relationship between the depicted and the signified, played out through a particular sensibility of picture making and presented within a thematic and conceptual framework which, hopefully, triggers a dialogue beyond the simple reading of a photograph.

DJH: The title of an earlier Ground project statement is “The Hole Is a Mark.” In some ways the hole allows our contemporary dialogue into the images. But in other ways it empties nostalgia out. How does the hole operate in relationship to the romanticism and sentimentality that can be at play in these images?

BM: The hole is a mark. It may not have been created for that reason, but it is a mark because that’s the way I’ve used it. The hole effectively confounds the photograph’s original purpose. Its presence challenges the established tenets of the FSA project that can be discerned in the unpunched photographs.

“The hole is a mark. It may not have been created for that reason, but it is a mark because that’s the way I’ve used it.”

BM: In becoming the dominant pictorial device in each photograph, it shifts the narrative. I think of these as unsentimental photographs, and as such they work counter to the way many FSA photographs are perceived today. There is nothing romantic about the effects the Great Depression and the Great Recession have had on so many of this country’s people and on its land.

DJH: These images are available for anyone to download from the Library of Congress website. Can you talk about ideas of authorship, ownership, and propriety as they relate to the images and your project?

BM: These photographs are owned, technically, by the American people. Anyone can download and print them. I like that each photograph in Ground is the result of three separate acts of picture making: the original photographer’s deliberate compositional and contextual choices, Roy Stryker’s hole punch, and my recontextualization.

BM: Since one can’t assign sole authorship to these photographs, it’s possible to view this project as an interactive body of work influenced both by photographic conventions of the 1930s and by those of today.

DJH: What are the political implications of your involvement with the killed negatives?

BM: Well, every photograph is a political reflection, whether it’s intended to be or not. Leading up to and following the Great Recession of 2008, I was saddened and angered by the parallels I saw with the Great Depression in terms of the increasing divide between the classes, the shrinking of the middle class, and the disconnect between Congress and the American people.

“Every photograph is a political reflection, whether it’s intended to be or not.”

DJH: After spending such a significant amount of time thinking about and working with these images, what is it that keeps them exciting for you?

BM: It’s such a great story. You begin with the largest photo documentary project in the history of the United States (except perhaps NASA’s and now Google Map’s), which produced so many iconic photographs (with all the issues and complexities inherent with the documentary model). And then it turns out that the director of the FSA photography division, Roy Stryker, had damaged thousands of negatives with a hole punch to ensure they would never be printed or published.

Little is known on why he did this, but it appears it had nothing to do with those negatives being controversial—it was a control thing. But the punched negatives remained in the files, and the collection eventually moved to the Library of Congress, where they became accessible to the public. In the years since the FSA negatives were defaced, our thinking about photography (as with everything) has changed; authorship and the auteur is questioned, the idea of the neutral image is challenged, and we have the fluid incorporation of the photograph in other media.

BM: With the change in culture, the meaning of that black hole, as a mark, now signifies something that it didn’t in the 1930s. More than anything, what has kept me invested in this work is the idea that the presence of that black hole, in certain photographs and when presented in a certain construct, makes the FSA photographs relevant today.

The photographs in Ground speak to our contest with different forces: nature, the government, the dynamics between people of different classes and races. They speak to now even as they confer meaning on the past. Damaged and bountiful land; drought, flood, and exodus. Starting over. Repeating the past.

Bill McDowell

Bill McDowell is the 2013 recipient of the Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant, and has received the Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship, the New York Foundation on the Arts Photography Fellowship, as well as many other artist grants. McDowell’s photographs are represented in many collections. Some include, the Yale University Art Gallery, International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
McDowell’s project, Banner of Light: The Lily Dale Photographs, was published by Light Work in Contact Sheet 96, and his photographs have appeared in Art in America, Art Issues, The New Yorker, Russian Esquire, Guernica, Spot, and Exposure.

DJ Hellerman

DJ Hellerman is Curator of Art & Programs at the Everson Museum of Art and previously the Curator and Director of Exhibitions at Burlington City Arts located in Burlington, Vermont. A native of Ohio, DJ began curating and educating people about art while helping Progressive Insurance build a collection of contemporary art designed to encourage innovation and change. He received his M.A. in Art History from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH and his B.A. in English and Philosophy from Lake Erie College in Painesville, OH. He loves live music and literature as much as he enjoys visual art. A few of Hellerman’s recent curatorial productions include solo exhibitions: T.R. Ericsson: Crackle & Drag, Björn Schülke: Traveling Spy, Mildred Beltré: DreamWork.